Posted on October 6, 2018
People are made to name and to be named. God names humans as His image and then renames people, most significantly Abram, to indicate how their very identity has been shaped by their history and experiences in God.
In Ephesians 3:15 Paul uses the phrase;
“…before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name.”
It is important for our identities to be received, not simply formulated through our own whims and desires. Imagine the tragedy and impact of parents refusing to name a child and making the child name themselves. We need an orientation point outside of ourselves, we need to know we belong somewhere and to someone.
Increasingly identity in western culture is seen as something that has fluidity, but identity and particularly names are something that are meant to remind us who we are, and whose we are. We are named by our parents, and they were named by their parents, and like it or not we are linked to our genealogy. As much as many of us, especially in our teenage years, would love to throw off what we see as the confines of familial connection, we are inextricably linked and shaped through the people we belong to.
We do in fact belong to people, social scientists continually affirm that we are social creatures who derive our meaning and identity from our relatedness. Even the various fads and phases that happen through our childhood and adolescence are attempts to transcend our given belonging (most often our family, nation or religion), and attach ourselves to another group (often marked by external signifiers of fashion, to signify an allegiance to a music genre or social movement).
Often our adolescent rebellion is against, most commonly, our family. Our rebellion is motivated by trying to achieve something we most likely already have, but do not feel and therefore do not remember; An Identity and a sense of belonging.
This is the very root of our human problem. We are a people who have forgotten who we are.
In the midst of the tremendous creativity of the creation account, we find a story that seeks to remind us of this common human malady; A stolen or forgotten identity. Many wonderful things are created, and then the pinnacle of this creation are creatures that resemble the very creator Himself. The image of God, man and woman. Yet further on in the story, all is lost when the chaos creature, the serpent, offers the creator-like creatures what they already have;
“Serpent: That’s not true; will you not die. God said that because he knows that when you eat it you will be like God” Gen3:5
The serpent tempts Eve with what she already has; the image of God. This case of identity theft leads the creator-creatures to lose their connection the very source of their life, and every subsequent human ratifies this grave choice.
Scripture is written as a narrative to invite us to belong to the covenant people whose story it tells. As we read it, we see a story that links all humanity together in our inclination to beauty, belonging, as well as to disconnection and pain. Scripture helps us realise that we can belong to a family, an identity that has been constructed and achieved by someone else, namely Jesus Christ. Finally, He is the one who relieves us from the unbearable burden of creating our identities from the ground up.
This isn’t to say that God is disinterested in our uniqueness, our expressiveness or our individual choices. He is, but the most important things about us, much like our human family identity, are things we are given, not things that we have achieved for ourselves. In some sense, we create the significance of our first name and we receive the significance, both good and ill of our family name.
In the emptiness that emerges when we are driven to create our own identity, we define ourselves in ways which mark us out from one other. We end up needing to defining ourselves over, apart and against one another. What makes us different? How do we count in the midst of the masses of others? This whole pursuit creates competition and disconnection and creates the intense fragmentation we experience and observe in society today.
Most of the evil, rebellion, and pain-inflicting actions of humans I’m convinced come from this basic foundational issue; there is not a place where they are loved, where they belong, where they are given a name that has more dignity than they could have ever dreamed. We are not driven by the need to create an identity, we receive the gift of identity and are then free to bless others to join in this family name.
At the heart of our modern identity theft is the way we understand the idea of freedom. Our understanding of freedom is to be free to choose every decision and action based on our personal desire and preference. The major problem with this freedom is that it does not take into account how interrelated our desires and actions are. We are deciding, thinking and acting within a mesh of perceived and invisible tensions and pressures that we often struggle to even identify. This type of freedom is a mirage. We cannot stand objectively and decide, so many things have been decided already, so many of the contexts of our decisions, the very choices we are given have been pre-selected for us. To attempt to objectively decide and judge every action and situation would render us paralysed and creates the curved-in state that Luther said was the essence of sin. That is why rather than attempt to create our own identities at every turn, we have been given boundary lines that make our choices meaningful.
If we try to craft our own identities disconnected from the One who gives true names we risk becoming mere shadows of what was intended for us. We have been given names, as dignified as sons and daughters of the living God. If we forget who we are, we don’t just endanger ourselves but we work against the very redemption story of creation we’ve been caught up in.
It can seem like we have less and less time, less relational energy and yet various voices within the Church consistently compete for when and where we should be spending that time.
“We should spend time with other Christians, it will build us up!” “No”, say others, “we should be out in ‘the world‘ making an impact”. Finally, others insist we should not “melt into the world, but neither should we lock ourselves away in the Church”. We should ‘reach out‘ by drawing not-yet believers into Christian community.
Within all this cross-tension of advice, we can often just give up figuring out who and where we should be. We instead default into either our personality-type-path-of-least-resistance or else conform to whatever is en vogue within the social tribe within which we find our sense of belonging.
David Fitch, in his book ‘Faithful Presence’ offers a thoughtful grid or set of analogies to figure out how to understand the spaces within our lives, not ‘forsaking meeting together’ as those who follow Christ, and yet having a presence in our communities. What is particularly helpful is his suggestion about who is the true host in each of these spaces.
In mission-oriented type groups, more complex theories of outreach or strategies for church planting find themselves with ‘in-house’ short-hand, acronyms and language. Although it can be tempting to poke fun or wash our hands of such moves, more and more it seems to me, that when humans gather around certain focus’, be it church planting, cycling or composting, they develop short-hand, in-house languages to communicate within themselves. Interestingly, in the last few years, much due to the work of Mike Breen and 3DM, shapes have become a popular way to display, in a short-hand way, these types of methods.
In reading David Fitch’s book Faithful Presence, and he used 3 types of circles to talk about the continual location (or in his words, “faithful presence“) of God through His people, the Church.
The Close Circle – The Host is Christ Himself
This circle (importantly called close not closed), is the committed people who are ‘In Christ’, those actively choosing to be in mutual submission to God, one another and His Kingdom. Helpfully I think, Fitch points out, there is a closeness that develops in this group which should about naturally and could even be understood to be supernatural. Often, in mission(al) circles, anyone who might confess an enthusiasm for gathering with others in this circle are seen as ‘churchy’ or ‘religious’. But Fitch takes as granted, that there will be an unmitigated reign of Christ in this space as no other, as all are in (at least stated) allegiance to Him.
Sometimes, enthused mission-ists,1 who are seeking to push people towards a missional practice, they can be caught doing it in an immature way. They create scarcity and shame, claiming that the real ‘heroes’ are the ones ‘out-there‘. This way does not recognise the abundance of dignity and honour that exist for all callings and spaces within the Kingdom of God. All spaces and callings within the Kingdom of God have honour and dignity, because they are God’s, not because the role or location is more en vogue. Frankly speaking, if this ‘circle’, is neglected or dishonoured, mission does not sustain its love for those it is co-missioning with, and therefore cannot display God’s love faithfully ‘out-there’. We renew and are renewed in this sphere to live faithfully present in the other two circles.
The Dotted Circle – The Host is the Believer/Disciple
Of course, God’s presence is not meant to be contained or confined to the close circle, God’s love by its very character moves out and expands an embrace to others.
Importantly though, within the dotted circle, it remains a place where the followers of Jesus are the hosts and it is defined as a place where a circle of committed followers are present. The biggest difference in this liminal space is that strangers and neighbours can enter, watch and participate, as much as they can, in what God is doing here. This might be a meal, party, foodbank project, but the space is open and yet is hosted by followers.
When the dotted circle gets confused with the close circle mission becomes impossible. When the dotted circle does not welcome strangers, it remains close or even closed. But when the dotted circle is seen as sufficient, then the renewing work of God that happens around the communion table, an unmitigated place of worship, devotion and connection to those In-Christ is lost.
The Half Circle – The Host is the World
Christ presence goes with us from places of worship (close circle) to places of hospitality (the dotted circle), into the places we live and work (the half circle). In the half circle, our posture has changed, taking a cue from Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11, we go, not as hosts but as guests.
We take on the humility that comes from being a guest. Contrary to turning up with resources, handouts and a large presence, we turn up to the world with need. The question here, as Fitch puts it is.. “not whether Christ is here or not. Rather it is whether his presence will be welcomed”. Just as Jesus’ sends out the 72 in Luke 11, we are not forcing our way by being the ‘haves’ in a world of ‘have-nots’, we are not insisting on our way by reaching for cultural influence, we are coming as servants and ready to pronounce the peace of Christ to anyone or anywhere that welcomes Him.
Fitch ends by saying that when we see the Church as a people, our location…” cannot be seen in terms of in here or out there. It is an entire way of life”.
Of course, these types of ways of describing things can become systematic. In the negative sense, any language we use as a system very quickly becomes a static and therefore dead ideology that bears no fruit.
But sometimes, these ideas can act like coat hooks for the times we spend, helping us to engage God, the world and other followers of Jesus fruitfully.
Is this helpful to you? What other frameworks have helped you connect with God, other believers and the wider world?
- my made up term for those zealous for the Church to ‘leave the building or it’s ‘holy huddle’. ↩
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: I have had a long-delayed writing project that I had to finish. I vowed not to write anywhere else until it was done.
Well, that seemed like a great idea until it didn’t work. Alas, my long-delayed writing project seems set to be derailed by travel, life-circumstances, busyness and ever other lesser thing which sneaks its way into my life.
So, I’ve decided I’m back. My vow is broken and I’ll continue to write things here and there despite the lack of progress on my ‘more important’ project.
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Posted on August 16, 2017
A Man who couldn’t be chained up, with some violent form of possession, is freed from ‘what ails him’. But rather than the forces disappearing into thin air, Jesus allows them to cause a final and more socially impactful act: to enter and then kill a herd of pigs. And, not just kill them, they go off a cliff and drown in dramatic lemming-style!
As John Walton says, the scriptures are “not written to us, but they are written for us.” So, it is important to hear these stories (as much as we can) through the ears of the original hearers. There are a few aspects that become much more significant and symbolic in the 1st century context and it is important for us to pick those up in order to faithful translate any understanding today.
A short thought on Connection, Disconnection and Spiritual Powers
In the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, Jesus speaks to the ‘legion’ of forces controlling the man who has been isolated, labeled, and cast off from his community. Firstly, this is an important and concretely social reality employed by the forces of of darkness that we should not over-spiritualise.
Many of God’s commands to His people encourage our concrete relational connection to others2 as the expression of God’s action of reconciling us to Himself in Christ. So, whenever we look at places where people find themselves isolated; imprisoned, hospitalised, impoverished, and marginalised, we should expect the powers are at play either as the source of disconnection or exacerbating the circumstances of disconnection.
Looking into the original context
1) Devastating the local economy to reveal one persons worth
It was Mike Pilavachi who I first heard mention this aspect of the story. The pigs more than likely represented one the main local industries in an agricultural context. It was not just a few pigs, these were pigs that represented income or significant assets to many in this region.
But why devastate the local economy? Well, potentially it as devastating enough to create some serious ‘buzz’ around Jesus’ presence and power. It’s far reaching impact is possibly how the story has been preserved in the gospels for us. But, this doesn’t seem that convincing to me, in many places Jesus’ still seems to be keeping his activity and even identity under wraps and so parlour tricks to gain an audience doesn’t really seem his style.
One possible theory could be that while a community has chained this man up outside of their belonging, Jesus is demonstrating that the Kingdoms that are clashing can not just be pushed out to the margins. In an act of both witness and judgement (read consequence) the community loses it’s wealth for neglecting its vulnerable. Whenever I have encountered someone in the state described in this story, they are rarely only a product of their own sin, but have often been sinned against in wounding and terrorizing ways. Finally, This is two thousand pigs, a significant asset for this region, and yet Jesus is revealing the worth of this one man.
2) Revealing both a rebuke and an invitation to gentiles
Jesus is clearly ministering in a gentile area, why else farm pigs if only kosher-observant Jews were around? By ministering in this area he is already bending the Israel-centric salvation understandings that are present in the 1st century. Deliverance, power-display, not just party tricks but a deliverance fore-taste, beginning with Israel, but with the intention to spill out for all the nations of the earth. Jesus is bringing the kingdom near to those understood to be on the outside of what he was about.
Pigs were literally the unclean and untouchable animals for Jews. Essentially in a Jewish mind, Jesus is sending darkness into filth. Jesus was making the point that even though he ministers in a gentile area that he has come to ‘fulfill the law, not to abolish it’. There non-Jewish ways and the darkness they are under are connected.
3) Let my People Go – Echoes of an Egyptian Deliverance
This year3, I’ve realised how important the themes of exile and deliverance are in Jesus’ actions. Much of Jesus’ life and activity in the New Testament is presented in the gospels as a new exile in reference particularly to the story of Israel being delivered from Egyptian Slavery.
In the context of 1st century Palestine there was a striking sense that the Roman occupation of the land was another slavery and another exile. The Pharisee’s, Saducees and revolutionaries are all looking for a new age of deliverance and for a Moses to deliver them from this new Pharaoh, Rome. Jesus presented the Kingdom as a direct opposition to Rome’s occupation. ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’ were all terms reserved for the Caesar’s, so Jesus is not just revealing YHWH but dethroning Rome’s claim to being the incarnation of god that Jesus is enacting.
Richard Hays says;
“No first-century reader would need to be reminded that the Legions stationed throughout the Mediterranean world and ready to respond to rebellion and revolt belonged to Rome. When Jesus then powerfully dispatches the demons into a herd of unclean pigs who plunge to their death in the sea, Mark hardly needs to explain the joke. It is a kind of political cartoon, in which the Roman army is driven out by Israel’s true king, sent back into the sea from which their invading ships had come.”
Only having this quote to work with, I’m not sure if Hays make the closer connection, but as soon as I had read this I thought of the ultimate act of deliverance as Israel crossed the Red Sea which then swallowed up it’s oppressors. Jesus here seems to delivering this man, while sending off a demonic legion (presented as a parable of the Roman oppressors, and an echo of the egyptian chariots) into the sea.
God’s people’s deliverance and God’s judgement on the powers that oppose Him are one act. Superb.
The story in Mark ends with the community afraid, presumably of more economic disrupt, begging Jesus to leave. The newly clothed and right-minded demoniac begs to join the travelling band of Kingdom announcers. Jesus’ instead, commissions him to go tell of what had happened, maybe as the first evangelist to the gentiles?
So, hopefully that helps you understand (at least a little more) why a bunch of pigs had to die. Happy to hear new thoughts or challenges to some of these sketches in the comments below.
- Much of the content here was inspired by Andrew Wilson’s post on Think Theology on this Gospel story where he quotes Richard Hays work. I’ve added a few additional observations and theories as they came to me reflecting on the passage, the article and Hay’s quote. ↩
- click here for some examples. ↩
- reading especially the work of Tom Wright and Peter Leithart ↩
Posted on July 30, 2017
Often we mistake the opposite of Love as hate, but in fact it is fear. There are things worth fearing, but fear as an undertone of life, relationships and society does not produce flourishing as God intended it.
Here Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does an incredible job at naming what is ailing us and offering interpersonal solutions to large scale problems. It is worth watching, probably a couple of times.
Posted on June 2, 2017
I’ve been reading and enjoying the work of Robert Webber recently. Webber led a change in evangelical circles to recover some of the treasures from the early church into our (post)modern mission, worship and thinking.
In the appendix of his book ‘Ancient Worship’ he gives a short critique of modern evangelical modes or ways of practising faith (pp.182).
He lists a number of aspects common to modern evangelical expressions of faith, but the following three caught my attention;
- Mere intellectual knowledge (Simply something to be understood)
- Overly therapeutic focus (focussed on healing or fulfilling people)
- New Age Gnosticism (experience-oriented, otherworldy focus)
He goes on to say, each of these focusses leave the Church with a lived experience that is inadequate for the challenges we face in today’s world.
I think Webber’s list is very perceptive and it led me to consider how each of these exists today (almost 10 years after the book was published).
I think each of these aspects have actually become streams or denominations within current evangelical Protestantism. Without naming names, it is fairly straightforward to see how certain popular movements within evangelicalism fit into one of these categories. While each of these aspects can often be grounded in desires that fit within true Christian spirituality, they are often touted as the only or most-important aspects of spiritual life. It is normally this over emphasis that leads them to be destructive.
The Destructive focusses of evangelicalism explained
A sole focus on Intellectual knowledge
While it is true that Christian life must be grounded in thinking that comes from a mind renewed, often those who prescribe a renewal of intellectual vigour towards the scriptures and theology are in their own way succumbing to the desire to ‘sum it all up’ and in that way ‘control’ their environment. Even the most articulate and orthodox expressions can be dead shells of the lived Christian experience.
A sole focus on the Therapeutic
True Christian Spirituality heals, forms and reforms people out of their brokenness and pain, into people who are humble, aware of their weakness and in many ways whole-hearted people. But often the therapeutic impulse unchecked ends up turning Christian spirituality into a space where transformation is for one’s own sake. Inner Healing becomes an endless investigation into one’s own navel. Ultimately the fruits are people who are self-absorbed and only relate to others in a helper mode. While inner healing focus’ look caring they can sometimes entail the very nature of sinfulness, which as Luther termed it, is being ‘curved in on oneself’.
A sole focus on New-age Gnosticism / Experientialism
True Christian spirituality involves experiencing the empowering presence of God in a way that gives life, love and wholeness to all their being. New Age Gnosticism though, is fixated on experience as its goal. Consistently chasing and then comparing experience, it creates side projects of extra-biblical theories and special areas of knowledge that have come from these experiences. The highest goal is to feel and anything that doesn’t create that feeling is not God. Another outcome of this is an invisible focus which leads to a dualism where the world is bad and heaven is good. The goal then becomes to go to heaven and leave the earth to go to hell. As G.K. Chesterton said, it is possible to be “less orthodox by being more spiritual.”
How to Reconstruct Christian Spirituality
In many ways what I have described above might poke a little close to home for you. The reason is likely that the most destructive errors are the ones which border the true sources of life. As I mentioned above, a renewed mind, a whole-heartedness, and a Spirit-empowered life are at the centre of true Christian Spirituality. But Protestantism seems to endless produce tribal groups that focus on one of God’s gifts to the point where the people they form end up limping in their discipleship. It is increasingly popular to be parasitic and endlessly deconstruct evangelicalism but that is not my goal here. I want to observe these traits in order to consider how they might be redeemed and renewed in order for evangelical Christians to reclaim their witness and vocation.
So what is the remedy to these disfigurements of true Christian Spirituality?
While it would be fairly presumptuous and simplistic to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for the state of 21st Century Christianity, I have a couple of thoughts on how we might recover some of these excesses;
A return to the Biblical narrative
All of the errors that I mentioned above are practised and perpetuated by a lack of grounding in the biblical narrative. Now, I don’t mean by this, biblical knowledge. Many of the streams involved in these areas can quote bible verses to back their focus. But what is missing, is recognising the great arch of the biblical narrative, creation-Israel-Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-Ascension-Pentecost, is a narrative we are invited to participate in. This requires teaching, sung worship and life together to include continual remembrances of what God has done in His salvation history. This would encourage us to see our place within it so that we can faithfully work towards the fulfillment of this great story that we are called to live in.
The Mission of God
When the biblical narrative is what grounds Christian life, We realise we are involved in the story of God, which is the mission of God. Not just some narrowly defined evangelism project, but that all of our lives are in the midst of something God is doing to reconcile all of Creation to Himself. The mission of God helps us recognise that the goal of Christian life is to be other-centred. Intellectualism can be a way to feel smarter than others, a Therapeutic focus can be a way to feel more compassionate than others, Gnosticism can be a way to feel more special than others. Each of these errors are essentially about the individual, not ordered towards God’s creation that is waiting to be reconciled with their Creator.
A commitment to Christian Community
God’s salvation story and His mission help us recognise that the purpose of a renewed mind, a whole heart, and a Spirit-empowered life is that we would show the world what God looks like. God is three persons in one, a loving communion that spills over into the life-giving act of creation. He is calling us to be one body, united in his son and in our love for one another, for the sake of the world. Community isn’t a nice addition to Christian life, it is both the vehicle and the goal of God’s mission. We can’t learn to love and live for others without being in close God-imaging community with others. As Lesslie Newbiggin has said, ‘the Church is the hermeneutic of the Gospel’. Christian communities are the way in which the world sees whether the Gospel is true or not.
The biblical story reminds us that there is ‘too much of a good thing’, in fact, when God’s good things get disordered in the hearts and minds of His people, it is called idolatry. It is worth reflecting on whether we are committed to thinking better, being more healed, experiencing God in ways that could actually be keeping us from God Himself.
I once heard someone poetically say that “music is beauty over time.” I like that.
This season for the Church Calendar is the start of the year. Much like when Sunday was the beginning of the week and was set aside for sabbath. How we count time is important, it reminds us of the story we understand ourselves in.
Here are a few pieces of Advent and Christmas-time music from a few different genres that you might enjoy;
The Brilliance | May you find a light
Lauren Daigle | Light of the World
Kings College, Cambridge | Herefordshire Carole
Kings College, Cambridge | O Come all yet Faithful
Kings Kaleidoscope – All Glory Be To Christ
Chris Tomlin | Come thou long expected Jesus
Leave your own suggestions in the comments below
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Posted on December 16, 2016
In part one, I looked at wine through scripture and it’s particular relationship to us remembering Jesus. This week, I’m reflecting on how wine operates in our society and how it relates to our Christian life.
In our modern lives, we are very disconnected from agricultural life. Our food and wine are not fruits of our own labours in the direct way that most people throughout history. We are deaf to the agricultural parables strewn throughout scripture. Indeed the powerful and important images of vineyards and vines are central metaphors for our belonging to God as a new testament people. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he is always referencing agriculture.
Protestantism particularly has attempted to distance itself from what has been called, natural theology, which broadly speaking is, the revelation of God in the natural world. As protestants have rightly sought to assert that we know God in and through Christ, we have created an either/or dichotomy that holds us back from enjoying God’s gifts and enjoying God in his gift of the created world. Often we are looking for signs of God’s activity and His presence to us, and primarily we are looking for what we understand to be supernatural and therefore immaterial signs and presences instead of the natural graces and signposts placed all around us in creation. Could we be cutting ourselves off from a sense of God’s nearness and sustaining hope because we cannot perceive it in the created order that surrounds us?
Wine production also becomes an allegory for our lives as Christians as John’s gospel reveals; The nature of the fruitful Christian life;
- We are connected to one another, our life is a shared one by it’s very nature.
- We are to bear fruit, to give away the labours of our cultivation, to be more than we were at first.
- We are to be planted, to root ourselves in a particular place and surrounding.
- We are called to react and pay attention to our surroundings, just like a vine displays the characteristics of its context, the weather conditions maybe, it is not a one-size fits all mass production.
Cultural immaturity, emotional vulnerability and our relationship to wine
Considering the place of wine in certain cultures is fascinating. Some cultures have a shared cultural memory, a cultural significance and even a cultural wisdom as it relates to wine. Other cultures have had much less exposure to wine, and are in fact marked by exposure to other alcoholic drinks. But there is a significance to wine, it is spoken about literally and symbolically throughout scripture and it was common place in the ancient cultures in which the bible is written. That is why it is important to pay attention to wine and how it operates both in scripture and how that contrasts with how our own cultures understand it.
Recently I heard a short history of alcohol in the U.S. which led me to create a broad brush theory as it relates to alcohol consumption and emotional wholeness. Before the theory though, here is a whistle stop tour of the history which I heard;
The first pilgrims who moved to the states attempted to plant vines of the east coast, due to the climate, the vines did not take. So they began to import wine, which made it a drink for the elite, and ensured there was not a common wisdom that could emerge as it related to alcohol on a societal level. Then as an outcome of the industrial revolution, people for the first time in history were able to mass produce hard liqour. In the early 19th Century, hundreds of distilleries appeared and made hard liqour the primary alcoholic beverage of the american people. When wars happened, particularly the civil war, people began to self-medicate for pain and trauma by using hard liqour. Then especially women, married to these traumatised alcoholic soldiers who threw their money at taverns, argued for prohibition and created an all or nothing tee-totalism that arose from very particular circumstances. So in short hard liqour is used to anethetise pain.
In contrast, nations well known for wine production, such as italy and france are known for their strong familial and open emotional postures 1. Wine has an entirely different character to hard liqour. You tend to drink it in community, often with food, and rather than producing forgetfulness, in small quantities it creates, a relaxed safety that produces vulnerability which in turn creates relational connection.
As I considered my own experiences within nations that have what would be considered national drinking cultures, I though of scotland and scandanavia, both who gravitate to hard liqour or spirits and neither who are known for the emotional availability or fluency. In contrast to the many historical wine producing regions which often have strong communitarian and familial bonds.
So, my theory and question is, does wine create community and liquor destroy it? Does wine in moderation create an emotional vulnerability where excessive alcohol creates an emotional shut downess?
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- (of course this whole theory is built on sweeping generalisations but one’s that I think hold up) ↩
Posted on December 10, 2016
Over the last few years, I’ve thought more and more about wine. Growing up in the UK, wine was either brought out for special occasions and namelessly served, or cheap, mass produced wine which was abused by those seeking to self-medicate.
Only since living in South Africa have I been introduced to truly appreciating wine; it’s characteristics, the nuances between grape varietals, the process and care taken to produce this most ancient of agricultural products. South Africa’s wine is so varied1 and affordable2 as to lend itself to an education in the breadth of wine varietals and regions.
Reading the bible, it is hard to get away from wine. It is both a historical artifact of the ancient world, and as with most agricultural processes in scripture, a deeply symbolic and meaningful image.
The symbolism of wine
A few years ago, I was partaking in a eucharist celebration when a friend who was leading the process spoke about the significance and symbolism of the wine making process (rather than just grape juice) as it relates to us remembering Jesus.
- Grapes are grown in specific conditions and require just the right amount of cultivation to produce wine.
- They are then tenderly picked and mostly by hand at the end of a sucessful growing period.
- They are then crushed in order that their inner character can be spilt.
- They then spend time in the tomb underground, maturing, taking on their new and true quality. Also becoming enhanced and empowered by the fermentation process.
- At just the right time they are pulled up from the under ground aging processs and enjoyed around a table, drawing together different people into a common family and enabling an uninhibited sharing.
This is not an intellectualised ode to alcoholism, but rather paying attention to the way in which wine operates in society and the power it has which speaks to something of the character of the power of God;
- It is the produce an seemingly natural item.
- It is processed through the counter-intuitive process of crushing, descending and then distributing a gift that draws people together.
Wine in the Scriptural God Story
Of course it is hard to deny the significance of wine within scripture, it is by far the most spoken about agricultural product (in fact over 1000 references in scripture), and it is chosen by Jesus as a particular way to remember him, and I’ve written before here about some of the possible siginficnance of that.
Wine connects us to our original task in Eden as those that bear the image of God; to take creation and to enhance and draw beauty from our stewardship of it. We are connected to the created order. Just as a musical instrument crafted from the wood from a tree, wine making enhances the creation in a way that it can be offered back to God in the midst of the joy of His people.
We don’t just stand over creation as it’s stewards, we also draw the material of our life from creation. We are in fact, soil with God’s breath in us. The creation account speaks clearly of this, the name adam, literally meaning earth, ground, soil or clay.
Wine in the scriptures speaks of celebration, of abundance, of the success of God’s kingdom people. It speaks of surplas, more than just neccesity.
Wine takes time, it takes a people who own land (another great theme of the scriptures) that have enough to sustain them and so venture to create this luxury good. When Jacob blesses Judah, he speaks of it in terms of huge vines, large enough to tie a donkey to!3 God’s promises to provide for His people, when the spies go to see a promised land they see huge grapes. It is a picture also of a future peaceable land where every person will sit under his own vine 4.
There are a number of encouragements towards wine for general health 5 in scripture as well as the slightly awkward first miracle of Jesus 6 which produces excellent wine to help finish off a party caught in shame at having too little on hand. Whilst certainly there are messianic and symbolic reasons for this particular miracle, the plain fact of it cannot be denied. Jesus is the wine maker, for a party already well under way in terms of it’s wine consumption.
It is also spoken of as something which mocks us if we over-indulge7. Reminding us that in this inbetween time, if the only key we know is celebration and we are not recognising the reality of suffering we will surely be undone.
Another scriptural writer reminds us that the Lord’s love is better than wine. This, another friend once remarked, is not said to create a contrast, as if wine were bad and love were good. It is said to say, this is the very pinnacle of human engenuity and creation production, and yet God’s love is better!
Receiving creation as gift as a remedy to abuse
A few years ago when my friend (who himself was friends with many a wine farmer) said that you will never find a wine farmer who abuses alcohol8, because, he said, they know the labour of it, they know the preciousness of it. Abusing alcohol comes from a mindlessness towards it. Indeed, often those abusing alcohol are seeking to be mindless because of what it is that is tormenting their minds. Instead, wine makers and wine farmers are attentive to the wine, to the land that created it and the effort and tenuous nature of the agrarian life in general.
Part two next week will take further the enjoying God’s gift in creation, thinking about how grape vines image our lives as christians and our cultural immaturity in our relationship to wine.
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- due to a number of micro-climates that lend themselves to wine production) ↩
- both because the pricing has to stay at a level consumate with average incomes but also becuase labour is at an unjustly low level for most labourers. ↩
- genesis 49:11 ↩
- in Micah 4:4 ↩
- 1 Tim 5:23 ↩
- John 2:3 ↩
- Proverbs 20:1 ↩
- and I’m sure exceptions that prove the rule can be found here. ↩